Helena Norberg-Hodge is a linguist, author, filmmaker, the founder of the international non-profit organization, Local Futures, and the convenor of World Localization Day. A pioneer of the ‘new economy’ movement, she has been promoting an economics of personal, social, and ecological well-being for more than thirty years.
In addition to authoring her latest book Local is Our Future, Helena produced and co-directed the award-winning documentary The Economics of Happiness, and is the author of Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, described as “an inspirational classic”. She was honored with the Right Livelihood Award (or ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’) for her groundbreaking work in Ladakh, and received the 2012 Goi Peace Prize for contributing to “the revitalization of cultural and biological diversity, and the strengthening of local communities and economies worldwide.”
She addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:
- That localization offers people a better connection with nature and each other; smaller, slower, more satisfying and human scale
- The call to resist the dominant trend of “top down pressure towards monoculture, a competitive, ever faster, ever larger scale global economy”
- The growth of local food movements, including farmers markets and small scale agriculture
- The value of changing “the I to We” and connecting with likeminded others to change the world collectively
Book: Local is Our Future: Steps to an Economics of Happiness by Helena Norberg-Hodge (2019)
Connect with Helena Norberg-Hodge
Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right?, a project of the Post Carbon Institute, where I interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good.
My interview today is with Helena Norberg-Hodge and if there’s anyone who’s been a cultural scout for half a century, it’s Helena. She is an linguist and author and filmmaker, and is the founder and director of the international nonprofit organization Local Futures, a pioneer of the new economy movement, and the convenor of World Localization Day. In this whole drive to relocalization, she and I share quite a passion, as well as local food.
She is the author of several books, including Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh, an eye-opening tale of tradition and change in Ladakh, or “Little Tibet”. Together with a film on the same title, Ancient Futures has been translated into more than 40 languages, and sold half a million copies. Her latest book is Local is Our Future: Steps to an Economics of Happiness. Other publications include Bringing the Food Economy Home, and From the Ground Up: Rethinking Industrial Agriculture. She is the producer of the award-winning documentary, the Economics of Happiness.
Helena was educated in Sweden, Germany, Austria, England and the United States. She specialized in linguistics including studies at the University of London and with Noam Chomsky at MIT. Her work spanning almost half a century has received the support of a wide range of international figures including Jane Goodall, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, HRH Prince Charles and Indira Gandhi.
From 1975, Helena worked with people of Ladakh to find ways of enabling their culture to meet the modern world without sacrificing social and ecological values. She was the first outsider in modern times to become fluent in the language. She has helped initiate localization movements on every continent, particularly in South Korea and Japan, and co-founded both the International Forum on Globalization and the Global Ecovillage Network.
She is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Right Livelihood Award (aka the alternative Nobel Prize), the Arthur Morgan Award and the Goi Peace Prize for contributing to “the revitalization of cultural and biological diversity, and the strengthening of local communities and economies worldwide”.
Helena is one of the elders that I have had the privilege of being in touch with for many decades. I’ve admired her, I’ve learned from her, and I hope you will enjoy her as well. So, Helena Norberg-Hodge.
Welcome Helena to What Could Possibly Go Right? I am thrilled to reconvene with you after, I don’t know, maybe five years since I’ve seen you. I was just recalling, I remember passing a room in a conference and there you were on a TV screen. This was early 90s, talking about Ladakh, and I was drawn in. Then meeting you, I think for the first time when we were starting the Center for New American Dream. When I look at my history with you, I look at my history of me. I look at a history that we’ve shared, of really trying to intervene, both of us, in the dominant story of consumerism and the capitalist economy, and actually lifting up this possibility that life can be better, sweeter, actually richer in many ways, if we pay attention to what is right there around us.
So given that we’ve had this long history, and hopefully you’ve developed some wisdom, I’m looking forward to what your answer is going to be to our one core question in this podcast, which is: Given all that seems to be going wrong, what could possibly go right?
Well, thank you very much for this opportunity. As you say, we’ve been at this for a long time. We should probably make clear for people, Ladakh. Most people have never heard of it and it’s actually the western most part of Tibet. It’s a part of Tibet that belongs to India politically. I ended up there in the mid 70s, and discovered one of the very, very few cultures on this planet that hadn’t been either colonized or developed. So I came to experience a culture that was still living according to its own values, its own principles and its own environment. There was no unemployment, there was no poverty, really no poverty, no hunger. There was above all else, this radiant health, especially mental health. I had never met people who were more just radiantly happy.
So I then witnessed how they opening up to the global economic system led to the systematic decline and how in a very short period, there was unemployment and there was unhappiness and conflict between people who are suddenly pitted against each other for scarce jobs. I wrote a book called Ancient Futures, and that was 16 years later, having spent about half of every year there. In that book, I talked about what I saw, back then this was in the late 80s, what I call these ancient futures, micro-trends in the West.
These micro-trends were trends that I was seeing in every country. I spoke a lot of languages, I was already involved in about 12 different countries and in 40 different language groups. What I was seeing was that there was evidence everywhere, that people wanted a better connection with nature, that they wanted a better connection with each other. The ancient futures micro-trends were things like, all around the world, people starting organic agriculture movements, wanting more natural birth, wanting more natural food, of course, wanting to build the community fabric, starting ecovillages; going against the dominant trend.
The dominant trend was this top down pressure towards monoculture, a competitive, ever faster, ever larger scale global economy. What was happening from the bottom up was people demonstrating that they wanted to go slower, they wanted to go smaller. A way that almost everything that was more natural, that was more satisfying, that made people happier, had to do with a slowing down and scaling down and building human scale structures.
Now, the one thing that could go right, particularly after COVID, is that all of these millions, and I’m actually talking hundreds of millions of people… We have a small farmers movement, which consists of La Via Campesina, the biggest social movement in the world with several 100 million farmers, and there are many other groups with small farmers as well. So we’re talking about a very large number of people in both the industrialized parts of the world and the less industrialized parts of the world who want to establish those better relationships, those more natural relationships.
The big thing that could go right, is that they recognize that they’re actually part of a systemic shift towards rebuilding more local human scale structures. Almost everything you see that is going right around the world is actually part of that picture. But what we need is the connecting fabric of a worldview that connects the dots, and that says that we need to make the systemic shift right now after COVID, when there’s huge pressure continuing from the top down towards an ever more-competitive, ever more resource and energy intensive, global way of doing things.
Now, that part is literally taking us to Mars to compete for scarce minerals. I don’t know if you’ve read about it recently, they’re also going to the very bottom of the sea to try to compete over finding even more minerals to build up a fast, big, competitive global economy that all around the world is imposing a consumer monoculture. At its very core, its scale and speed means it can only deal in monoculture. So it is now pushing us to have agriculture that is more monocultural, using robots linked to drones, linked to satellites to monitor carbon.
What this means is that we have to be sceptical about the big Green New Deal. We have to awaken to the fact that the small green deals that have been going on ever since the beginning of the environmental movement, they were small green deals that understood that we need holistic experiential knowledge in order to care for and nurture every bit of soil, every tree, everything that lives, in order to nurture and care for our children, to care for our elders, to care for ourselves.
We need to slow down, we need to reconnect with others, reconnect with the living world. As we do that, we allow for an inner reconnection, a deep spiritual reconnection, where we actually are allowing the right part of our brain to have a place in our world and in our emotions, in our bodies. Even the left-right brain discussion that’s going on now, happening in neuroscience, is pointing towards localization.
I am a bit frustrated that we do have a worldwide localization movement, but it’s not as big as it could should be. Because somehow, particularly in the Western world, we are still caught up in the belief that because we have some very big problems, we’re going to need one big solution. We believe that the internet is our best friend, in terms of creating a new economy. I believe that the internet is our best friend in terms of creating the opportunity for communication, to communicate a big picture.
We need the big, big picture, and we need it quickly. We need to disseminate that rapidly on a big scale, and the internet could be our friend in that, but the internet is not a friendly economic tool. It’s not a tool that shapes those human relationships, those relationships to the plants, to the animals, to the water, that are our economy, our home, our us. To reconnect with that, we need to reconnect with the life around us.
So this is the paradox, that yes, we do need to quickly and on a large scale, communicate that we cannot ever have a big wide thing, be a monolithic solution for the whole world. It is the appropriate, the location-specific, that is rooted in deep understanding, holistic understanding, that is the way we must move.
Now, how do we do that? We do that primarily by practising what I call big picture activism. We realize that maybe the most important action right now is to wake up to the reality of these two opposing directions; the top down, bigger, faster, global monocultural at its very core; or genuine support for diversification, genuinely supporting systemic localization. To do that in a meaningful way, we can start right now, where we live. We can actually open our eyes to the fact that when we put on the lenses of global to local, then we can actually find wherever we are, we will see examples of those trends that take us towards that human scale, towards more natural, towards the local.
I want to ask you where you legitimally… I know how passionate you are and how loyally you’ve carried this message for so long. I hear you that post-pandemic, wouldn’t we all love to have what breaks down be the things that shouldn’t be there, and what comes up through the cracks in the sidewalk is everything that you and I have believed in?
And yet at a practical level, where do you see evidence? Really, standing on the hillside, scanning the horizon with your little spy. Where do you see evidence that localization, even without a movement at the scale you want it? Where do you see evidence that localization is rooting itself now?
Where I see evidence of localization is in a worldwide local food moment, which I am so proud to have helped to start in many, many countries. But one of the things that’s happening is that, even the people who were part of starting the new farmers markets and the edible schoolyards; all of these examples of local food economies that are demonstrating that we can produce more food per unit of land, more food per unit of water very importantly, that we do that in a way that restores wild biodiversity, and of course, multiplies geometrically agricultural biodiversity. It also builds communities, so it’s a very fundamental and very important movement.
And yet again, what we need is the intellectual, connecting the dots, big picture activism, to spell out the evidence. First of all, that the foundational production in our economic activity is, and needs to be, food production. Now, what we do to agriculture is what we do to the soil, to the water, what we do to our health. That has been taken away from most people around the world, into a system that is dominated by giant corporations. They have had so much power, they have infiltrated our schoolbooks, our science, our governments, our regulatory system. Despite that, we have managed to establish local food systems…
I have a question about this because, of course, I’ve worked on this now for maybe ten years in my region. What I’ve noticed is that our local farmers, most of them have no interest in an analysis of the global systems. They’re interested in growing food, and they’re doing it, and they also have to have side jobs. So it seems like in your view, lacking the local food systems, lacking a global analysis of the forces that they’re up against, is insufficient. That’s what I’m hearing. I feel like there’s a missing piece.
Absolutely. But I would argue also that I’m particularly keen to reach those people who are still doing something to make the world a better place. Whether it’s concern right now about Afghanistan, whether it’s concern about what’s happening at your school, whether it’s donating a bit of your time or your dollars to do something to make the world a better place. In other words, not doing something for economic gain or personal gain.
All of those people still constitute such a large number. They are the ones we need to call on to help make this bigger picture visible, to support the struggling farmers, because the dominant system has marginalized the two most important things we do as human beings; how we raise our food and how we raise our children. In both of these areas, it has been turned into shadow work, not respected. We need to turn that around. That’s fundamental to the localization moment.
Do you see that turning around? Where do you see it turning around?
I do. Well, you see, even what I see with the love of the farmers market, and I see how mothers thrive when they shop there with their children; as compared to the supermarket, where we’ve had studies that show, you will rush through trying to avoid all the adverts for sugar. You are basically having ten times more conversations at the farmers market. So it’s becoming a foundation that is helping other localization initiatives.
However, I think what we really need to recognize is not why isn’t there more localization? We need to recognize that it’s a miracle that there is any of this happening. It just testifies to this human will and what gives me the conviction that ultimately nature will win, and ultimately those people who feel more connected to nature will be proven right. But really, absolutely, there’s not nearly as much localization happening as one would hope.
My goodness. I have to say, for me, it’s just so miraculous to see more and more evidence of things that I didn’t even know about. Right here, where I live in Australia, I tell people I started all the farmers markets, because we have four major farmers markets. Four days a week, you can go to one of these markets, and they’re loved. Now the local government, they boast about them. They are just absolutely adored by everybody. But starting them took years, and even as we went on to the third and fourth, the local government slowed everything down.
Anyway, I find out just recently that there is a fifth market that I didn’t even know about, that’s only a 14 minute drive away. That’s just an example of that, even with my commitment to this, there are so many more things going on than I realized. I think most people, if they tune themselves to putting on those lenses, they will find that there’s much more happening than they realize.
That’s such an interesting example, because I’ve noticed over my long career, that ideas that seem perfectly obvious to me take 10 to 20 years to be absorbed by policymakers. When they are absorbed, the policymaker will take credit for it, so I have to learn how to… I mean, it’s like we want to do things from the bottom up for the love and joy of it and the appropriateness of it, but also, we want to have this sly little feeling that we’re sort of feeding the next platform to the local representatives, the local government, and local state and national government, people in politics, number one. Activists try to force things, but you also can present a platter of beautiful opportunities to claim a future, to claim credit for a better future, if you understand what I mean.
I’m looking in our conversation for things that people can grab on to and apply in their own areas. I think this is one of them, that persistent foundational work will often make something visible, that once it’s visible, people will grab it and claim it. You just have to have the humility to not tell them that you got there first.
Yeah, in my case, it’s very, very clear. Also, I think the very label that I’ve used, which is local; local is your local. And it’s so obvious, so people are often not aware that actually, they first heard it from us. I was right there side by side with Bill Mollison in Berkeley in the 70s, as he was starting to promote permaculture. He was actually quite proud of not being organic. He was boasting about, Yeah, chemicals are fine. For a while, they were just imposing these Australian species, but still that term permaculture really caught on and is attributed to this one man. By the way, I think people should know that David Holmgren, his student, was there and more of the thinker. He’s a dear friend and I love permaculture.
But it’s interesting that by giving the label local, you’re actually empowering local people, and you know, that’s attributed to me. However, I should get credit for being a pioneer of the localization movement. Enough people probably know that. But for me, it’s not about that. I just feel that it is about that somehow, because it’s very obvious and common sense, it gets added on, and people say, Yeah, sure. Local is good. But the study of the global system is really what leads to clarity about that this is a central feature of the systemic shift. That’s where most people have been lacking.
I think that’s a perfect place to wrap it up. I am inspired by several things about what you said. Number one, your persistence. I mean, just talking about that you were there with Bill Mollison when permaculture began. That’s a very long time, I will have to say. So there is something about if you are doing work that you, in your gut and soul and heart, you know is right, even if it’s small; there’s something that if you represent it, because it’s in you, it will grow.
Yeah, but in my case, I feel like one way to describe it is like I had imprinted in my soul, the pattern of an Indigenous way of life; an Indigenous way of life where I felt so much happier. I loved living in a world where there were no mirrors. I loved living in a world where I was moving constantly, using my body, walking, moving, because we didn’t have all those technologies. So even when I was working with a monk to do a dictionary of the language, I had to walk across the whole town, up to the mountaintop where he had his little monastery. We might have a date, but then he wasn’t there. I had to leave a note and then go back again.
Then six months later, sitting in New York on a phone and hearing a beep beep of another call coming in, my body knew how I wanted to live. My body couldn’t prevent me from feeling, No, no, no, we’re going in the wrong direction. You’re going faster and faster. You think it’s efficient. It’s not. It’s robbing you of time. So I had it like this, and it’s sometimes definitely been hard, because as being so passionate about it, it marginalizes you. So you’re seen as this sort of…
One trick pony, right? Yeah. Well, we’re sort of jumping over the windup places. It’s like, if you felt something in your soul that is right, an imprint on our souls. I think many, many people have had experiences where they go, even if it’s a glimpse, it’s like, Yes, that’s it. Every one of us is an outpost for the things that we love, where every one of us is a representative for that thing that we have seen, that we have a big yes to. So may we all prevail on this.
I do want to take another couple minutes, because I asked you since we’re old friends and longtime activists, I have a little lightning round for us, and I sent you a list of three questions. Basically, what’s one thing that is, in these 30 odd years, it’s doesn’t have to be your biggest win, but what’s a big win that you remember right now? Like, Yes, that happened.
Well, the biggest win is literally thousands upon thousands of local food systems, and the people who are inspired to do that being the happiest, healthiest people I know. That’s the biggest one. And being reminded of that, almost on a daily basis. I do get emails from around the world, saying this change my life. So that’s definitely the biggest thing.
What about the most unexpected thing? Standing back, there you are in Ladakh, and here you are now, whether it’s on the upside or the downside, unexpected, like you never expected that by 2020, this would be happening?
I didn’t expect COVID to demonstrate the totalitarian nature of the top down system the way it has. It breaks my heart that in COVID, we hear almost nothing about the incredible importance of vitamin D and prevention, which of course is what our health system should be about. But our health system having gone the corporate way has gone the for-profit way, so here in this crisis, instead of worldwide dissemination about very clear steps like vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, which has been proven to keep people healthier.
At the same time, just hearing you, it’s like a setback and a reset, but we don’t know where it’s going. It’s a most interesting time. It’s an alinear time.
Well, also just say about that, if you want to keep it or not, but COVID so clearly strengthen both sides. Amazing, interest in local food. People ran out of seedlings, out of little chickens, farm tools, then bicycles, and yeast to bake bread. So there was this huge support for a type of localizing and slowing down. Many people developed an appetite for it. Many people who were imprisoned in little flats in the city didn’t, but they did develop an attitude and a real desire to get out to the country and to get out to smaller towns from the big cities, which is all part of the global to local shift as well.
That’s an interesting idea of the bifurcation, you know? If it’s a bifurcation, then it’s sort of like the deck of a boat. Which side of the boat are you going to put your energy on? Then also, just thinking about a young person who wants to make a difference; they’re in their 20s. What advice would you give to a young person?
I would say, the first step is to change the I to We. Don’t buy into the dominant narrative, which keeps telling what are you doing to save the world? Change the I to We. Connect with even just one other or a few other like minded people. Then I would say, there is an agenda. There’s a systemic part that will help to heal you and your fears and your anxiety, at the same time it’s giving you the tools for healing the planet.
So we offer a very hopeful path, this path of the We, because one of the most damaging things that’s happened is that we’ve been separated from one another behind screens of fear, because we’ve been led to believe we have to be perfect or not lovable. This is part of a dominant consumer monocultural system. It doesn’t emanate from innate trauma or from some innate problem. It emanates from systemic pressure. By the way, Gabor Maté agrees on that.
And he’s been at it as long as you have and I have, and yet he is sort of having his day right now. We’re realizing how traumatic, how this way of life has traumatized us all. Thank you, Helena. So beautiful. Thank you so much for your wisdom.